The Portrait of a Lady

by

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After dropping to her knees upon Goodwood’s exit from her rooms, Isabel is “not praying; she was trembling—trembling all over.” She is intensely relieved that Goodwood has gone, describing the event as getting rid of a “payment,” and she feels a great “throbbing in her heart.” It takes Isabel ten minutes to rise to her feet and she is still trembling when she takes a seat in the living room. She wonders if her intense reaction is due to “the exercise of her power” as well as the extended conversation with Goodwood. Isabel is also immensely satisfied at having proved how much she values independence by rejecting two favorable marriage proposals in the space of a fortnight.
James reveals that Isabel’s collapse is intensely physical. Her trembling body and racing heart may be attributed to exerting dominance over a powerful man, her sexual desire for Goodwood, or both. Interestingly, Isabel reverses the usual objectifying relationship by which a man declares ownership over her and instead commodifies Goodwood as a financial transaction that is now paid. Ironically, though, Isabel is still fiercely vulnerable to financial instability; she currently relies on her aunt and uncle for living means. 
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
The door opens, and Isabel rises with alarm, believing that Goodwood has returned. However, it is simply  Henrietta returning from her dinner with American friends.
Isabel’s panic at the door opening signals her volatile state of mind after her intense interactions with Goodwood.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Henrietta can see that her Isabel is in an unusual state, and quickly asks if Goodwood has visited. Isabel is frustrated by her friend’s numerous invasions of privacy regarding Caspar Goodwood. She tells Henrietta that she can no longer trust her, but Henrietta exclaims that Isabel doesn’t know what’s good for her—Goodwood is perfect for her, and she cannot entertain the thought of marrying a European. Henrietta is quite certain that during Isabel’s future travels in Europe, she will receive multiple proposals, as one of Henrietta’s dinnertime companions recounted three European marriage proposals, and Isabel is far more irresistible than she. Isabel is unimpressed by Henrietta’s concerns, believing them to hold no merit. Henrietta attests that she loves her friend and believes that Isabel is “drifting to some great mistake.” Isabel requests that Henrietta leave her love life alone.
Henrietta has the audacity to tell Isabel she knows what is best for her, ignoring Isabel’s firm choices regarding her love life. The journalist’s bold actions arise from good intentions, as Henrietta is greatly concerned that Isabel is losing her American identity and that further European travels will result in Isabel marrying an undeserving European man. Isabel is “drifting” on vague hopes and ideals without any firm understanding of life’s realities. Unfortunately, all of Henrietta’s predictions will come true later in the story. Isabel and Henrietta’s friendship is unusually frank compared to the novel’s other friendships.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Henrietta decides that she will not return to Gardencourt despite Mr. Touchett’s renewed invitation, preferring to wait on Lady Pensil’s letter of invitation that Mr. Bantling promises her will arrive to London any day. Isabel asks Henrietta if she knows where she is “drifting,” and Henrietta replies she is to be the “Queen of American Journalism.” She takes her leave of Isabel to go shopping with her friends.
Isabel turns Henrietta’s accusation of “drifting” back on the journalist, enquiring about Henrietta’s next movements and simultaneously suggesting Henrietta is totally off course in her European newspaper assignment. Henrietta’s flippant reply demonstrates the journalist’s frustration with Isabel’s behavior.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon
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Shortly after, Ralph visits Isabel with some unhappy news. Mrs. Touchett has sent a telegram that states Mr. Touchett’s health has taken a turn for the worse. She is extremely worried and begs Ralph to return to Gardencourt. Ralph has decided to seek a well-known doctor in London, Sir Matthew Hope, to employ him to call on Mr. Touchett at Gardencourt. Ralph will stay in London only to secure Sir Hope’s services before traveling back early to Gardencourt. Isabel decides she will also return to Gardencourt earlier than expected in order to comfort Mr. Touchett; her cousin greatly appreciates the care and affection Isabel shows for his father.
Mrs. Touchett never sends a telegram without some weighty news and this time it is the tragic revelation of Mr. Touchett’s decline. Ralph’s decision to employ one of the best doctors in London to attend to Mr. Touchett demonstrates the opportunities that Isabel wholly lacks due to her lack of financial support. If she became sick, she would have to rely on her family and friends’ goodwill for medical care.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Ralph returns to see Isabel later the same day. He has successfully met with Sir Matthew Hope and is ready to depart London for Gardencourt. Isabel is still getting ready for departure, and Ralph finds Henrietta in the sitting-room. She pays her respects to his father, wishing Mr. Touchett better health. She also recounts her pleasure at Mr. Bantling’s friendship and connections, as well as informing Ralph that Caspar Goodwood visited Isabel the previous evening.
Henrietta continues to provoke her peers by revealing Goodwood’s visiting Isabel to Ralph. Throughout the novel, Henrietta’s liberating character acts to move the plot forward, starkly contrasting Isabel’s many introspective scenes.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
Ralph blushes at the revelation of Isabel’s visitor, but chides himself, feeling that he has no right to be concerned about his cousin’s romantic life. He also tries to persuade himself that he has no right to feel upset that she lied to him about her plans for the evening. However, Ralph is relieved when Henrietta explains that Isabel had no prior knowledge of Goodwood’s visit, as Henrietta herself had devised the plan with Goodwood. Ralph is also delighted that Isabel sent Goodwood away with no promise of her romantic affection, although outwardly Ralph can only exclaim “Poor Mr. Goodwood!” at Henrietta’s story.
Ralph is similar in nature to his cousin; like Isabel, he outwardly presents a calm façade in the face of alarming news despite experiencing great internal turmoil. Once again, Ralph tries to dissuade himself from feeling romantic interest for Isabel because he knows he cannot offer her a lengthy future together.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The Dangers of Wealth Theme Icon
Henrietta tells Ralph that she has no intention of letting Goodwood “give up” on Isabel, as she believes her friend really does like Goodwood and would benefit greatly from their union.
Henrietta remains staunch in her opinions and desires, paralleling Goodwood in this regard. In fact, as a pair Henrietta and Goodwood embody the key values of the American New World woman and man.
Themes
Female Independence vs. Marriage Theme Icon
The European Old World vs. the American New World Theme Icon